Judge Orders Oakland Co. To Provide Safer Conditions, Disinfectant For Jail Inmates Amid Virus

Court also wants a list of inmates to consider for release

WWJ News
May 21, 2020 - 9:47 am
inmate behind bars

(WWJ) The Oakland County Sheriff's Office will have to make quite a few changes in the jail because of the coronavirus. 

A federal judge on Thursday issued an order in a lawsuit filed by Jamaal Cameron, among inmates who demanded better, safer housing conditions and the release of medically-vulnerable inmates.

Cameron, in jail since March on a weapons conviction, said there were times he wasn't provided a mask while in close contact with other unprotected inmates and corrections staff; telling the court he was scared for his life.

There is a list of 22 things the sheriffs' office must do to protect inmates during the pandemic. Along with providing cleaning supplies and space for social distancing, the jail was ordered to produce a list of medically vulnerable inmates so the court can consider their release as the virus crisis continues.

Judge Linda Parker's seven-page order requires the following: 

1. Provide each incarcerated person, free of charge, on a biweekly basis, two bars of individual hand soap and a hand towel to allow regular hand washing and drying. Provide unrestricted access to additional hand soap upon request.

2. Provide each cell and each dormitory-style housing unit, at no cost, a supply of disinfectant hand wipes or disinfectant products effective against the COVID-19 virus for daily cleanings, in sufficient quantities for inmates to clean and disinfect the floor and all surfaces of their housing unit.

3. Provide daily access to cleaning supplies at no cost for inmates to clean their cells, including showers, toilets, telephones, and sinks. Supplies shall be disinfected before being shared between housing cells.

4. Require cleaning of any surface or area shared by four or more inmates, for example tabletops, telephones, door handles, television controls, equipment, and restroom fixtures. Surfaces and areas shall be cleaned every hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. with bleach-based cleaning agents.

5. Establish a protocol for monitoring and supervising the regular sanitization of housing units, common areas and surfaces. Provide guidance to correctional staff to provide them with the knowledge needed to oversee and assure that cleaning is adequate and effective.

6. Provide access to clean showers and clean laundry, including clean personal towels on a regular basis, but at a minimum on a bi-weekly basis.

7. Provide masks for all inmates and staff members. If cotton masks are provided, such masks must be laundered regularly. Users must be instructed on how to use the mask and the reasons for its use.

8. Require all Jail staff to wear personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, when interacting with any person, distributing items to prisoners (e.g., mail and hygiene supplies), or when touching surfaces in cells or common areas.

9. Ensure, to the fullest extent possible, that all Jail staff wash their hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol both before and after touching any person or any surface in cells or common areas. Consider allowing staff to carry individual sized bottles of the referenced hand sanitizer while on duty.

10.Maintain a protocol through which an incarcerated person may self-report symptoms of COVID-19 infection and to evaluate those symptoms, including temperature monitoring.

11.Within three business days, provide the Court and Plaintiffs with a detailed plan to continue testing all inmates for COVID19, prioritizing members of the Medically-Vulnerable Subclass, as well as a plan to test all individuals who have access to the housing units or interact with inmates or with other people who have access to the housing units.

12. Conduct immediate testing for anyone displaying known symptoms of COVID-19 and submit a weekly list to the Court and Plaintiffs’ counsel indicating the number of tests performed that week and whether any inmates or jail staff have tested positive for coronavirus.

13. Provide adequate spacing of six feet or more between people incarcerated, to the maximum extent possible, so that social distancing can be accomplished.

14. Ensure that individuals identified as having COVID-19, with symptoms of COVID-19, or having been exposed to COVID-19 receive adequate medical care and are properly quarantined in a non-punitive setting, with continued access to showers, mental health services, reading materials, phone and video calling with loved ones, communications with counsel, and personal property (to the extent reasonable and necessary to the inmate’s physical and mental well-being). Such individuals shall remain in quarantine and wear face masks and gloves when interacting with other individuals until they are no longer at risk of infecting other people. Facemasks must be replaced at medically appropriate intervals.

15. Respond to all COVID-19 related emergencies (as defined by the medical community) within an hour.

16. Post signage and information in common areas that provide general updates and information about the COVID-19 pandemic, information on how inmates can protect themselves from contracting COVID-19; and instructions on how to properly wash hands. Among other locations, all signage must be posted in every housing area and above every sink. Require staff to provide this information orally to low literacy and non-English speaking people.

17. Train all staff regarding measures to identify inmates with COVID-19, measures to reduce transmission, and the Jail’s policies and procedures during this crisis (including those measures contained in this Order).

18. Suspend co-pays for medical treatment for the duration of the pandemic and encourage all inmates to seek treatment if they are feeling ill.

19. Waive all charges for medical grievances during the pandemic until further order of the Court.

20. Within five business days of this Order, establish and put into effect a policy suspending, to the extent possible, the use of multi-person cells (with more than two individuals), except where the person is currently under quarantine, or a person for whom a medical or mental health professional has documented that particular housing is needed. All housing units utilized shall be configured to permit social distancing, to the maximum extent possible. If dormitory-style housing must be utilized, those areas shall be reconfigured to allow six-feet between inmate beds to the maximum extent possible.

21. Ensure that Plaintiffs’ counsel have the ability to promptly communicate with detainees.

22. Within three business days, provide the Court and Plaintiffs’ counsel with a list of the members of medically vulnerable inmates, along with their records. This will help the court to implement a system for considering the release on bond or other alternatives to detention for eligible inmates. 

Some inmates have already been released early due to the virus. Oakland County Sheriff's officials have said the jail population was down to about 670 inmates amid the pandemic, when it is usually about 1,300. Earlier this month there were nine inmates under quarantine

The Oakland County Sheriff's Office released the following statement in response to the lawsuit: 

"Today, Federal Judge Linda Parker released a 71-page Opinion and accompanying Order denying the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims in the prisoner release litigation filed against the OCSO by attorneys for the ACLU. In her Opinion, Judge Parker found that with regard to inmates who are medically vulnerable, “...home confinement or early release is the only reasonable response to the unprecedented and deadly COVID-19 pandemic.” In addition, Judge Parker stated, “Any response other than release or home confinement placement constitutes deliberate indifference.”

While the Opinion dismisses Sheriff Michael Bouchard and Captain Curtis Childs from the case, the law enforcement community is gravely concerned with the consequences of Judge Parker’s decision. The potential effect of the above language taken directly from Judge Parker’s Opinion infers all medically vulnerable inmates currently incarcerated in any jail or prison in the United States must either be placed in home confinement or released, irrespective of the inmate’s violent history and irrespective of the proactive response efforts taken by the facility. Additionally, Judge Parker’s decision could prohibit the incarceration of any new arrestee, regardless of their crime, simply because they may be classified as medically vulnerable. Judge Parker’s decision sends a clear message to every violent criminal that they potentially have no fear of incarceration despite the violent nature of their act if they suffer from asthma or are overweight among other conditions. Significantly, Judge Parker’s decision is contrary to every reported case across the country which has dealt with the prisoner release issue related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further, Judge Parker’s decision fails to consider the difference in how jails and prisons across the country have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. While Judge Parker’s decision noted the Oakland County Jail has had 47 inmates test positive for COVID-19, her decision fails to disclose that as of today, the Jail has only six inmates who are currently positive for COVID-19. This reduction has occurred as a direct result of the Oakland County Jail’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those six inmates remain in quarantine. Additionally, no inmate at the Oakland County Jail has required hospitalization nor died because of COVID-19.

The Sheriff is not statutorily allowed to release prisoners or to sentence them, but from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sheriff’s Office has been proactive with sending lists of non-violent and medically vulnerable inmates to the Courts for review. Both the Sheriff’s Office and the Courts must balance public safety against an individual’s medical vulnerabilities if they are released into the community. The Sheriff’s Office has not recommended the release of anyone who has a violent criminal history.

Judge Parker's decision is inconsistent with the law, and inconsistent with other cases around the country which have dealt with prisoner release requests. 

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office has already filed an appeal of Judge Parker’s Opinion and will be asking the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the release of any medically vulnerable inmate from the Oakland County Jail until appellate review is concluded."